He Was An American Icon: Why Tom Petty Matters

by Robert Steiner

He Was An American Icon: Why Tom Petty Matters

In honor of the late rocker, here’s a rundown of just some of the songs that cements Petty as one of music’s greatest storytellers.

There’s no sugarcoating this one: The music world lost an irreplaceable talent last Monday. After spending an entire day fighting for his life, Tom Petty, legendary songwriter and one of rock’s greatest performers, died of cardiac arrest at the age of 66. Less than a week before that, he had just wrapped up a 53-date 40th Anniversary tour with his longtime band, the Heartbreakers, which was intended from the start to be the their last big, nationwide tour. I was lucky enough to see Petty at their fourth-to-last show in Sacramento, CA, and long story short, the entire band was incredible. It was a perfect reminder of how great Petty was at performing, songwriting, and just bringing thousands of strangers together to sing, dance, and have a good time. In that spirit of unity, I thought the only real way to honor Petty, and to explain to non-fans why he’ll be remembered as a legend, was with the many, many songs he wrote over the years. It would require a full-blown academic paper to discuss all of the rocker’s hits, so instead I created a chronological retrospective of Petty’s entire career using just five songs. It was nearly impossible to choose which tracks to leave out, so please be aware there are definitely more songs where these came from. Some are classics, some are deeper cuts, but all of them are worth a listen.

“Breakdown” (1976)

This song is usually only acknowledged for being the first single off Petty and the Heartbreakers’ self-titled debut, a mere glimpse of the massive string of classics that were to follow. Yeah, it may not have the same recognition as the band’s second, much bigger single (more on that later), but it’d still be a crime to dismiss “Breakdown” as a lesser song. The smoky, seductive track checks the usual Petty boxes – solid groove, slinky guitar riff, damn catchy chorus, etc. ­– but here’s the real reason this song is, in my mind, genius: Notice how the song starts with a full 30-second instrumental. Kinda weird that the first quarter of a two-and-a-half-minute song is just an intro, right? Well, there’s a reason for that: This song was released back in the days of rock radio, which usually featured zany, talkative DJs babbling a whole lot of nothing over the beginnings of songs. This often meant that listeners missed a good chunk of the first verse due to the DJ introducing the “hot, can’t-miss band” he was simultaneously interrupting, but on “Breakdown,” the first verse doesn’t start for half-a-minute. The band literally gives space for the DJ to say his shpeal, and then they start the song for real.

This move is, as local Bostonians would put it, “WICKED SMAHT.” The band’s first shot at radio-play is a song literally made for the radio. Not only is that effing cool, but it also shows how much thought and care Petty and the Heartbreakers put into their craft from day one, and that’s definitely something to be admired.

“Refugee” (1979)

For any spunky, young songwriter out there who wants a lesson in how to write a short, sweet, but incredibly effective rock song, look no further than this little gem from the Heartbreakers’ first bona-fide hit record, Damn the Torpedoes. In a decade where it was 20-minute long disco jams in the mainstream and blistering fast and chaotic punk rock in the underground, here came along this skinny blonde-haired kid from Florida who loved the Beatles and had no intention of joining either of those crowds (as Petty himself told Rolling Stone in 1978, “Call me a punk and I’ll cut you.”). With its remarkably straightforward “AABA” song structure, “Refugee” harkens back to the classic, pre-psychedelic rock sounds of the 1960s at a time when bands like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd were anything but straightforward. The track is still one of the Heartbreakers’ moved beloved by fans to this day, and aptly shows that a “good” rock song isn’t always defined by a five-minute guitar solo or a free-tempo breakdown. Sometimes, a good hook and some smirking attitude is all you need.

“Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” (1981)


As you probably gathered from my ramblings at this point, the beauty of Petty’s songwriting style lies in its simplicity. The songs hold up on their own, obviously, but it’s also this very simplicity that gives other artists room to jump in and offer their own artistic flair alongside Petty’s jangly heartland rock, making him a perfect collaborator with just about anyone. This fact is probably best exemplified with your dad’s favorite wholesome super-group, the Travelling Willburys, but Petty proved to be a great co-writer a good decade before that when he teamed up with Stevie Nicks for her first solo record, Bella Donna. The album’s lead single, “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” is as much a Tom Petty song as it is a Stevie Nicks song, but that’s the true beauty of this track. No egos hogging the spotlight here; just two artists giving the best at what they do – Nicks’ mesmerizing howl, Petty and the Heartbreakers’ less-is-more groove – to create one of the best songs of both of their careers.

“Rebels” (1985)

The mid-1980s proved to be a bit rocky for the Heartbreakers, causing the sessions for their ambitious pseudo-concept album Southern Accents to be pretty tense for everyone involved. Things became so on edge, in fact, that during the mixing of this very track, Petty got so PO’d that he punched a wall, shattering his hand as a result. Southern Accents as a whole ended up being pretty meh, but luckily for Petty’s left hand, “Rebels” actually turned out pretty great. At a solid five minutes, it may not be the cleanest written Petty tune, but the song’s lyrics weave a deeply impassioned tale of a good ol’ Southern boy whose proud heritage is also his greatest curse, making it one of Petty’s most complex and thought-provoking works. At the time of its release, however, most listeners didn’t get that subtext is a thing that exists in most art, so the song was widely misinterpreted as a Confederate flag-swinging anthem for Southern pride. This unwanted response caused Petty to essentially shelve the song after the Southern Accents tour out of frustration, only pulling it out once in a blue moon in the years that followed. It’s too bad, really, because even though it’s not a perfect song – Dave Stewart’s new wave production is admittedly a bit distracting – “Rebels” is still an underrated and deeply reflective track that gives the listener a glimpse into Petty’s own struggles with his Southern family tree.

“Yer So Bad” (1989)

After going non-stop since the ’70s, Petty took a much-needed break from the Heartbreakers in the late ’80s, but in true workingman fashion, he intended to stay busy in his newfound downtime. In 1989, he brought on Electric Light Orchestra mastermind and fellow Beatle fanatic Jeff Lynne as a producer, and the pair created Petty’s most successful record of his career, Full Moon Fever. While there are plenty of winners to talk about on this album, namely “Free Fallin’,” “I Won’t Back Down,” and “Runnin’ Down A Dream” among others, I decided to point out the record’s fifth and final single, “Yer So Bad.” It may not be the flashiest track on the record, sure, but it’s still a great example of the rocker firing on all creative cylinders, crafting a sharp, witty song with a melody that’ll creep into your head before you can even notice. In just a quick three-minutes, Petty weaves a raspy tale of deceit, theft, and steadfast love, complete with a cast of characters and a rousing chorus to tie it all together. Just as his mop-topped heroes did before him, Petty was truly the master at writing simple songs packed with substance and energy, proving that even a good eight records into his career, he could still deliver some solid home runs.

“To Find A Friend” (1994)

For his second solo outing, Petty brought on famed producer/beard enthusiast Rick Rubin to help record another all-time classic, Wildflowers. This particular record showcases Petty at his most quiet and most tender, signaling the clearest departure from his gritty, twang-y rock tunes from his early years. Like Full Moon Fever, there are simply too many songs from this record to talk about for this list (if the title track doesn’t make you well up at least a little bit, then you might wanna go look for the soul you apparently lost), so for our purposes, let’s shine the light on a slightly deeper cut, “To Find A Friend.” I could go on and on about this track, but instead, just listen to the lyrics:

“In the middle of his life / He left his wife / And ran off to be bad / Boy, it was sad / But he bought a new car / Found a new bar / And went under another name / Created a whole new game

“And the days went by like paper in the wind / Everything changed, then changed again / It’s hard to find a friend”

God dammit. That cuts deep. So much life and imagery about lost love and crushing loneliness, and we haven’t even gotten to the second verse yet. It’s a downright beautiful track that is bound to resonate with anyone who has struggled to find people to love and count on, aka pretty much anyone who’s lived at least a day or two. Songwriting truly doesn’t get much better than this.

“American Girl” (1976, Hollywood Bowl clip)

Finally, we’re going to end this journey with one of the songs that started it all, the Heartbreakers’ second single and fans’ most cherished song, “American Girl.” This jangly anthem to youthful abandon acted as a thesis statement of sorts for the rest of Tom Petty’s career: A song about everyday people stuck in small towns, dreaming about the “great big world” that lies just down the highway. For the next 40 years, Petty would continue to write and sing about these kinds of people, the everymen and women always chasing dreams or looking for a better life to live. Even while he became a music legend in his own right, he never forgot about the small town where he came from, and all the small town people who looked up to him not as an untouchable rock star, but as someone just like them. Petty and the Heartbreakers closed every night of their 40th Anniversary Tour with “American Girl,” including the final show Petty played. The clip above is from that night, taken front row at LA’s Hollywood Bowl on September 25, 2017. Just like the man himself, we’ll end with this song too.

Thanks for everything, Tom. It’s time to get going, but we’ll keep the music playing for the whole ride.